Rebranding The South Bronx: #WhatPianoDistrict

Anthony RivieccioRebranding The South Bronx: #WhatPianoDistrict?
By Anthony Rivieccio

Officially, the effort to rebrand the South Bronx started in April, when Keith Rubenstein, a founder of Somerset Partners LLC, a private equity firm, purchased two industrial properties –2401 Third Avenue and 101 Lincoln Avenue– along a stretch of the Harlem River.  Somerset Partners then announced plans to build as many as six 25-story towers with market-rate apartments and ground-floor retail.

Then last month, local residents awoke to a new neighbor. The developer’s giant ‘Welcome to the Piano District’ billboard rebranding their neighborhood. And adding insult to injury, the tone-deaf developer hosted “Danse Macabre,” a star-studded party, attended by the downtown glitterati, including our own Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. and his BFF Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. The celebrity soiree came complete with burning ash cans and bullet-riddled cars meant to remind millenial partygoers of the 70’s burning Bronx. Many Bronxites found the party and its “art” very offensive. My question, “Where were the Bronx Warriors to complete the vicarious fantasy?”

Danse Macabre_Bullet-Riddled CarsIt did not take long for Bronxites concerned about gentrification to respond to the Piano District billboard with a  social media campaign. Bronx artist Karen Pedrosa launched the hashtag, #WhatPianoDistrict as a means of raising awareness of the growing South Bronx gentrification movement.

Pedrosa said she was furious when she saw that billboard; particularly its claim that fine dining was coming to The Bronx even though the borough already has several great restaurants.

“Them just trying to rebrand an already established neighborhood is what really pissed me off, and that’s why I said, ‘What Piano District?'” she recalled. “To me, there is no Piano District there.”

Credit: therealdeal.com

Credit: therealdeal.com

According to Welcome2TheBronx blogger Ed García Conde, the hashtag serve to bring together people who share concerns about South Bronx gentrification. Conde has been highly critical of both the party and the billboard.

“It’s, one, a way to raise awareness about what’s going on and what’s happening,” he said. “And two, to help keep the movement going of like-minded individuals where people don’t want to be priced out of their neighborhoods.”

Recently, Fordham University professor, Mark Naison, posted on social media:

The only piano which anyone in the Bronx should celebrate is the one in the apartment of the great jazz pianist, composer, singer and educator Valerie Capers! And if you want to name a district after her piano, it should only be with her permission. #Whatpianodistrict

Since 2012, real estate developers have ponied up $2.39 billion for Bronx properties  — a 39% increase. Mott Haven, Morrisania, Melrose, Port Morris and Hunts Point account for 50% of that real estate activity.

What has all this new investment wrought in the South Bronx? Walk through Mott Haven along Saint Ann’s Avenue, and you will find new developments renting above market rates — $1,550 for a three-bedroom, $1,350 for two-bedroom and $1,250 for a one-bedroom.  The average boroughwide rent for one-bedroom is now is $925.

According to a 2014 report by the Manhattan-based Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, fully forty per cent of South Bronx residents are living below the federal poverty line, and thirty-five per cent of tenants spend more than half their income on rent. As these residents struggle to keep afloat, many must now worry about being able to remain in the South Bronx.

To the dismay of activists, local politicians, with the exception of Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, have been silent on the proposed “Piano District.” Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is thought to support the name change as well as the waterfront luxury development. As mentioned above, he even attended the ‘Danse Macabre’ party two weeks ago.  Other local pols have even suggested that this Piano District could have a positive ripple effect, both in positive publicity and economic growth.

In my opinion, the purposed “Piano District”as currently being developed, could increase area housing costs by an additional thirty percent.  As a consequence, displacement of current low-income residents could be as high as sixty percent of the Mott Haven District.

We are assured by the powers-that-be that gentrification is a beautiful thing. Sure, in the abstract, gentrification can enhance the “economic life” of a neighborhood.

But gentrification brings displacement. And the questions of at what level and at what cost must be answered. Can the potential displacement of upwards of 100,000 people bring real economic growth and upkeep to a community that has been struggling for the last half century? Cynics ask if gentrification, can bring about a future 2017 Mayoral run?

Perhaps. Or perhaps not.
Anthony Rivieccio is a long-time northwest Bronx resident and business owner. He was President of the 204th St/Bainbridge Ave Merchant Association, Committee of 100 Democrats, former member of Community Board 7, and Founder of both the North Bronx Thinktank and the Northwest Bronx Democrats. Anthony is a published columnist  who has written for Norwood News, The Riverdale Press, The Bronx News, Parkchester News, and The Bronx Times.